Different strokes: In Spain, people took to the streets to protest austerity measures. But when austerity means cutting waste, isn’t it a good thing? *AFP photo
Different strokes: In Spain, people took to the streets to protest austerity measures. But when austerity means cutting waste, isn’t it a good thing? *AFP photo

FRIDAY, MARCH 9: Among the insights offered by the latest Budget — some inspiring and many downright depressing — was three words likely to become a propaganda lynchpin.

“Growth over Austerity” was the refrain of the Premier and her party, and echoed in media headlines.

Simple. Brilliant. But incredibly sneaky and stupid, too.

Let me work through my list of epithets.

“Growth over Austerity” is simple, to be sure. It’s catchy. It gives a whole heap of extremely complicated and difficult decisions a simple either-or choice for which there is only one possible answer. How hard is that?

As such, there’s a good chance it will stick in people’s minds, and be bandied about by PLP politicians and the party’s advertising consultants.

That is its brilliance, too. It offers something that feels good (growth) — even very good (stimulation) — as opposed to something that is so wretched that nobody would willingly choose it.

It suggests, furthermore, that anybody who dares criticize the PLP’s Budget or economic performance actually prefers austerity to growth. The Government’s opponents (given the choice the Premier has laid before us) must be determined to strip jobs and benefits from honest, God-fearing Bermudians.

What kind of cold-hearted Grinch would do that?

In that sense, “Growth over Austerity” is a sneaky kind of slogan. The simple, apparently logical, two-way choice tries to pigeonhole its critics.

But it completely sidesteps the two most important issues voters ought to be weighing when they consider Bermuda’s economy.

The first is: How has the current Government performed with money and the economy in the past?

“Growth over Austerity” doesn’t say anything about this, but Bermuda didn’t magically and mysteriously land in its current economic situation.

If we want things to be better in the future, we surely ought to be doing something different than what we were doing on our way into this fix.

The second issue for voters is: How is the current Government likely to perform in the future, if it continues in power?

It’s not enough for the Government to believe in “Growth over Austerity”. It has to come up with a convincing programme for delivering growth and avoiding the danger that austerity will be imposed upon us, against our will.

My sense of this year’s Budget is that it represented a gallant effort to muddle through until the next election is dealt with. It left me uncertain where the growth is going to come from, and how serious cutbacks can possibly be avoided for long.

Still, if the Government can succeed in making the election debate one of growth versus austerity, it will make life an awful lot easier for itself.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that, that despite its brilliance, the simple choice of “Growth over Austerity” is a stupid one.

What does “austerity” mean, anyway?

Cutting benefits

The Premier says she has chosen growth over austerity. But cutting spending to the point that a lot of public buses don’t work could easily be called austerity. So could delaying making pension contributions, or cutting benefits for senior citizens.

Looked at another way, is it “austerity” to cut waste, cost-overruns, and spending that isn’t accounted for, authorized or even needed?

Surely there is a difference between prudence and “austerity”, just as there is a difference between “growth” and extravagance and waste.

What’s more, cutting waste and trimming spending might be the only way to avoid extreme “austerity” cuts in the future.

There’s no question that Bermuda has dug itself into an economic hole.

It might have been avoided if we had been wiser in our spending in recent years. And it would have been much less severe if the world’s economy had not suffered a severe recession.

But the right way forward is surely neither austerity nor growth.

It is cutting where cuts can be made, while hurting individuals and jobs as little as possible. And it involves finding ways to grow our economy and attracting money to the island, without being extravagant and wasteful.

It’s a difficult mix. But getting out of an economic hole was never going to be easy — certainly not as easy as a simple, three-word slogan.